Dealing with trust and control issues

Understanding the behavioural impact of neglect, abuse and abandonment

By Debi A. Grebenik, PHD

One family had a 12-year-old son they adopted at age six. He was adopted previously at age three when the rights of his birthparents were terminated; but unfortunately, the adoption dissolved and he lived in a residential treatment centre until he was adopted by his new family. Obviously, this young boy had experienced multiple traumas in his brief life.

As a result, he exhibited significant behavioural issues. Most notably, he acted as though he were a two- or three-year-old. He was not able to interact socially with children his own age. In addition, he could not identify or express feelings and his cognitive delays were evident. Even his motor skills were compromised.

To their credit, the parents did not focus on some of his challenging behaviours. Instead, they provided him with unconditional love and acceptance, much like God does for us every day. Part of what these parents did was rock and cuddle with this boy to provide him with some of the connections he missed as a baby. They also told him how sad they were that they did not get to take care of him as a baby, protect him and nurture him. They created new bonds with him as they talked constantly about how special he was to them – and they saw enormous progress in his behaviours.

The sensitive parent is attuned to his or her child's natural rhythms and responds to those appropriately and timely.1 This attunement, which is primarily nonverbal communication, is paramount to secure attachment. A parent's ability to be attuned is contingent on his or her own experiences of trust, attachment and bonding. When children have parents who respond sensitively to their signals and provide comforting bodily contact, the children can then respond readily and appropriately to the distress of others, thus demonstrating the ability to empathize.2 As a result, positive patterns of interaction are deposited in the brain's limbic system, providing a repertoire of experiences for the child to build upon. The child begins to trust and relate to his parents emotionally. This is where the healing begins.

Each child needs to make a connection with a significant adult with whom he or she can feel safe and process his or her hurts, fears and hopes.

The three A's of attachment

Let's take a look at the three A's of attachment as offered by Dr. B. Bryan Post:

  • Attention: spending time, talking, singing, interacting
  • Affection: holding, rocking, kissing, carrying
  • Attunement: feeding, making eye contact, soothing, attentiveness3

Take a moment, read those, take a deep breath and read them again. Certainly, you are providing most, if not all, of these key components. But if there is a lack in any of these areas, become proactive in emphasizing this in your relationship with your child. For most of us, this process comes naturally; for some, however, this process is difficult.

While it would be easy to be judgmental toward parents unable to provide this secure base, we must remember that some parents enter into the parenting chapter of their lives without the experience of having been adequately parented themselves.

They bring their crippling pasts to the parenting role. Some come with histories of physical abuse, sexual exploitation, extreme neglect, domestic violence, drug exposure, economic deprivation, medical trauma or parental absence. Due to the significance of these backgrounds, some will be crippled in their ability to respond sensitively to their child's needs. They may not understand the potential harm that their actions or inactions may have on a child in their care.

Attachment disorder can be transmitted inter-generationally. Children lacking secure attachments with caregivers commonly grow up to be parents who are incapable of establishing this crucial foundation with their own children. Instead of acknowledging, understanding and following the instinct to protect, nurture and love their children, they abuse, neglect and abandon. But with self-awareness and help, parents can and do break these cycles. It is vital that we work together to break such cycles.

Next article in series: Reactive Attachment Disorder
First article in series: Attachment and Bonding

1. John Bowlby, A Secure Base: Clinical Applications of Attachment Theory (Padstow, Cornwall: TJ International Ltd, 1988), 9

2. Ibid., 15

3. Heather T. Forbes and B. Bryan Post, Beyond Consequences, Logic and Control (Orlando, FL: Beyond Consequences Institute, LLC, 2006)